Joy and knowledge

Feedback: In Search of The Holy Grail

Over the last 6 years I have, sadly, not discovered the holy grail of feedback. Call me a cynic but I don’t think it actually exists. This post exists merely as an account of my journey in search for it so far.

My sense of direction is so utterly atrocious that it has been necessary for me to call upon many a wise guide along the way: each has presented bridges over rivers, a walking stick to support my weary feet, and some have pointed me towards more treacherous routes along cliff tops and through overgrown graveyards. No educator has made the same journey towards the holy grail of feedback but aren’t we always saying that it’s the journey that matters more than the destination? My journey has been worth it for the gems picked up along the way and these will be shared here. 



Whatever journey you take, wherever your guides send you and whether you arrive at a final destination or not, you must avoid burnout. Feedback and marking can be so valuable for planning and successful learning but it is not the only tool you have to hand.

Mark Miller (@GoldfishBowlMM) offers some sage guidance in his post on ‘Getting on top of marking‘. Marking for the students would be my one non-negotiable from his list (although they’re all worth listening to). The students are the ones doing the learning (well, we are too, but that’s a post for another day!)- you make professional judgements based on what will allow them to learn best. If we’re to justify this to others who may demand that our feedback is done differently then it’s our responsibility to remain informed and up-to-date. If not, then our feedback may not be functioning effectively as a tool to aid learning and we’ll have to conform to another’s way of getting the job done.

Is the holy grail inside the box?


(No- but it’s probably as close as you’ll get to it!)

An early gem of a guide on my journey was ‘Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards through Classroom Assessment’. In it, Paul Black and Dylan William give advice that, having just read it again, is probably all you need to know. If you wish to leave my blog after the section below then you’re probably free to go!

‘The collection of marks to fill up records is given greater priority than the analysis of pupils’ work to discern learning needs.’

Giving out marks, ticking the assessment box and moving on is never helpful practice but on many courses, it’s an ever-present danger to be drawn towards, especially as the pressure points hit throughout the year.

‘The giving of marks and the grading functions are over-emphasised, while the giving of useful advice and the learning function are under-emphasised.’

‘What is needed is a culture of success, backed by a belief that all can achieve. Formative assessment…gives particularly good results with low achievers where it concentrates on specific problems with their work, and gives them both a clear understanding of what is wrong and achievable targets for putting it right.’

For me, this has been the most vital learning point about feedback- focusing on what the learner needs to do next time is essential if they’re to make anything close to resembling progress. Otherwise, they merely understand what they could have done differently last time around but not what they can do now to improve future work.

‘For formative assessment to be productive, pupils should be trained in self-assessment so that they can understand the main purposes of their learning and thereby grasp what they need to do to achieve.’

The importance of self-assessment will be explored later.

This post from David Didau (@LearningSpy), on the importance of students receiving feedback and taking it on board rather than us just dishing it out to them is a great read to ensure that your time spent marking is not wasted. Click here to read it (and explore his blog for the multitude of posts he has written on feedback).


2 STARS, 1 WISH, WWW/EBI or medal & mission?


Over the last 6 years, I’ve made my way through forests filled with methods of delivering feedback so that the student can understand and digest it easily (and so that the teacher has a common and easy to use format to follow). These darkened forests, dense with feedback approaches, have made it difficult to see what to use, when and with whom. As I’ve travelled further through my career, I’ve gained more experience about judging which methods to use, how and when. You’ll have to go on your own journey of discovery with these approaches as no single educator can hand you the magic solution to solve all of your marking woes. What really matters with whichever approach you use is how successfully the student engages with the feedback in order to improve their work. I include them here in no particular order.

Medal and mission


Medal and Mission comes from the one and only Geoff Petty (@GeoffreyPetty). The concept is based on Black and William and it is designed to encourage specific feedback that leads to the student knowing exactly what to continue doing next time, what to improve and crucially, how they can do it.

Medals: This is information about what a student has done well, e.g. ‘Your paragraphs and punctuation are good’ or ‘That’s good evidence’ written in the margin next to a well made point by the student. Grades and marks are measurements not medals. Medals are information about what exactly was done well.

Missions:  This is information about what the student needs to improve, correct, or work on. It is best when it is forward looking and positive. e.g. ‘try to give more evidence for your views’ or ‘Use more paragraphs to show the structure of your writing’. Again, measurements such as grades do not usually give this information.

Clear goals: the medals and missions need to be given in relation to clear goals usually best given in advance. Goals might include assessment criteria such as ‘use paragraphing to show the structure of your writing’ or ‘give evidence, illustrations for the points of view you express’.

You can read about this strategy and access supporting resources and materials by clicking here.

What went well, Even Better If


I’ve found this approach to feedback to be quick and easy- useful for giving feedback in class, after presentations and my students are great at applying it during peer assessment. Just like ‘medal and mission’, it’s really about ensuring that each of the statements is specific and helpful so that the learners know exactly what to continue (what went well) and what to change (even better if).

1 thing


This is a strategy I’ve applied ever since I heard it from Paul Emberlin (@emberlinP). My students were beginning to get overwhelmed with my feedback. At this point in my career, I had found Twitter and therefore all of these incredible teachers and ideas. I wanted to try EVERYTHING! So my feedback became this huge beast that my students couldn’t get a hold of. They had comments all over their work and no clear direction forward. Should they focus on the medal and mission included at the bottom or the comments written on the script throughout? I then began writing 2-3 clear targets at the end of their work. This helped but which should they prioritise first- the structure of their work or their application of terminology?

This approach is particularly useful as the students work towards a final examination or assessment. You mark their work just for one aspect (sentence structures/ analysis of theories/definitions of key concepts…). The student can then focus on improving that aspect before moving to any other aspect. This means they can make a real difference to their work over time rather than attempting to improve everything at once. This possibly isn’t a strategy you’d like to use all of the time, but it’s a good approach to apply at strategic points through the year.

Mystery marking


This approach to feedback (from Joe Kirby (@joe_kirby) with the use of icons – read his blog here- and a colleague, Liz Anderson for the highlighters) is all about increasing students’ engagement with their work. You choose a series of numbers, highlighters in a range of colours or a set of symbols that you’ll apply to their work. You decide on a code prior to marking. When you give feedback to the students in class, the learners then spend some time moving around the room to discern what each of the numbers, colours or symbols mean. Once they think they’ve cracked the code then it can be revealed. This approach develops students’ self-assessment skills as they are required to focus on whether the number, colour or symbol is indicating an area of strength or an area for development- and then what that strength or area for development is.  If your students aren’t engaging particularly successfully with their feedback then this is a great strategy to employ. If you also need students to view one another’s work more often then it is a great way of introducing them to this.

Red Pen / Green Pen


I use this strategy all the time now- ever since a student suggested that it might be helpful- our journey guides can come in all shapes and sizes, you know! It allows me to direct the engagement with feedback far better in the classroom. For instance, ‘read through your red comments- these are the areas to correct, work on and set targets for’. ‘Look at the green comments- these are the areas to continue in future work and to share with peers’. It can then lead to all the kinds of peer assessment, reflection activities and redrafting that are all described later in this post.

Use of sticky notes Nevit Dilmen

These are, and have long since been, a staple item in my classroom and I didn’t need a guide to find them. They have now become a staple in my marking too. I use them to ensure that all students do some redrafting or corrections as soon as a piece of work is given back. The students are asked first to reflect on their feedback and then make changes to their work- on the small ones for corrections to spelling, vocabulary choice or punctuation and on the larger ones for making sentences clearer and/or more meaningful.

The big ol’ pen debate


This blog from Tom Bennett (@tombennett71), key promoter of the movement to make teachers more evidence based (or at the very least, evidence aware) in their practice, sums up the whole argument rather nicely. Use whatever colour pen you like! As long as the students are absorbing it, actioning it and learning from it then your ink has been well-spent (whatever the colour).

After choosing one of these many methods of delivering the feedback, the next step is to ensure the student plays a part in the process too.

Can the holy grail be found by gazing into the pool of self-reflection?


I have always been a big fan of reflection. I subscribe heavily to it for my own practice and I recommend it to other staff I work with. Here’s my blog about reflection. I have always felt it to be equally important for students. Rather than us dishing out our feedback to fall on deaf ears, to damage self-esteem or to build inordinately large egos, far better to merely provide them with some food for thought and guidance about moving forward. It is they who must commit to making the changes and in engaging students in reflection post-feedback, we encourage them to take ownership of their work immediately.

What? So What? Now What? (post-feedback)


I make use of Rolfe’s model of reflection to guide students in reflecting effectively on their work. On the back of feedback sheets for larger assessments, I print the following questions with space for them to respond:

  • What? What were your strengths and areas for improvement?
  • So What? How does this connect with how you thought you did? How does this compare with what you’ve understood/struggled with so far?
  • Now What? What will you continue to do? What will you do differently? What actions will you take to improve?

At a quick glance, I can then ensure that they’ve read the feedback, taken what they should have done from it and decided for themselves what they need to go and do next.

Self-Assessment (pre-feedback)


Before handing a piece of work in, I always ask for some level of self-assessment to be completed. For the most part, the students will use the key criteria they’ll be judged against in the mark scheme. Initially, the students wrote comments such as ‘I did well’, ‘This was good’, ‘It could be better’ next to each piece of criteria. These comments may be accurate but they’re not nearly specific enough therefore they’re wholly unhelpful for both of us. Instead, I refuse to take their work in until they’ve explained specifically what part of their analysis were good or what part of their paragraph structure they weren’t happy with. This way, I can ensure they have a full understanding of the criteria as their judgements match mine and it helps to build a far more fruitful dialogue than ‘this was good’, ‘yes it was’. Instead, we can discuss in more specific terms and set achievable targets for their work together.

RAG 123

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RAG 123 (@ListerKev) is an approach to marking that at one point, almost every teacher on Twitter was talking about. It’s a self-assessment led approach that promotes itself as quick, effective and time-saving. This was a crossroads I reached and I chose to take a route less travelled but you can view his PowerPoint slides introducing the approach here.

Is the holy grail found in the culture of critique?


Peer feedback was happening all the time in my classroom. Someone on my PGCE once told me it was a good thing to do so I got the students swapping their work all the time and having a look at it. There are a number of posts that have lead to my further exploration of how to get the most of it but the one that follows has to be the most influential.

One of the biggest reasons this post, ‘Creating a Culture of Critique’, from David Fawcett (davidfawcett27) has been so influential is that it has transformed my peer feedback from bits of paper flailing aimlessly around the room for sweaty, clueless palm to bored hand. My peer feedback now looks much closer to this (*when I plan and execute it properly of course):

What critique does differently though is develop the process by getting the feedback and feedforward more specific and refined.  It forces the feedback that is given to be more focused on specific features or elements.  All of the comments are designed to allow the writer/author/artist to take away that particular draft and know exactly what elements need focusing on.  The feedback becomes similar to that of a set of instructions, all with the purpose of driving forward the quality of a piece of work.

What critique really needs to avoid being an entirely teacher-led, directed and influenced process where the learners merely imitate learning by carrying out ‘busy work’ is TIME. That gold dust of a thing means that the entire process from evaluation, through feedback and into redrafting is viewed as a essential to learning.

Ron Berger, ‘An Ethic of Excellence‘ is definitely the text to explore where critique is concerned. This video is Berger explaining how it works:

‘As a number of teachers are increasingly engaging students to peer or self assess pieces of work, we need to first teach them how to do this.  The research from G. Nuthall talks roughly about how 80% of feedback students receive is from their peers.  But 80% of this student-student feedback is wrong  ties into this.’

I initially worked on the aspects of kind, specific and helpful mentioned in this post and gave my students a ‘fabulous feedback‘ guide. I certainly never begin any peer feedback activity unless we’ve discussed success criteria and they know what they’re assessing. Modelling what a good one looks like has been really important too. I could probably spend all day in Jamie Clark’s (JamieClark85) photo timeline on Twitter. A WAGOLL sheet:


An Ethic of Excellence is well worth a read. If you don’t have time for that then this guide (pp. 28-31) gives a great summary of his ideas and David Fawcett (davidfawcett27) has broken into a series of easy to follow steps in ‘Creating a Culture of Critique’ that begin with exploring examples of excellence, allowing the student to draft their work, before the critique time begins (and kind, specific, helpful feedback is encouraged).

The video below is of David talking through the changes he’s made to get towards a culture of critique and this is worth absorbing because if the students remain churning out work, never seeing anyone else’s and never being asked to improve it then there’s little point them doing it in the first place:

This blog is filled with a teacher’s reflections on a journey towards critique that includes plenty of student reflections and feedback. This second blog from David is a collection of other approaches to ensuring that feedback sticks.

Critique Teacher Version4 (2)

(This image is available from here)

Steal a sentence


In a recent video hangout with Lawrence Hill (@LHillmusic) about target setting and measuring progress, we spoke about how he encourages his students to reflect on their work and their peers’ work using medal, growth, steal. The steal being something the student would like to emulate from another person’s work because it’s so great. This is a strategy to employ as part of peer assessment as it develops students’ evaluation skills and allows them to focus on what they’re aiming towards in their next piece of work. This is a version of stealing I’ve used in the past:


You can access a PDF of this sheet here.



In more recent years, my feedback journey has taken me through a great deal of DIRT.


Improvement &



Having explored already the value I have found in engaging students in reflection, DIRT offered other solutions too. Essentially, DIRT is all about having high expectations of students’ work therefore there are strong links to Ron Berger’s ‘An Ethic of Excellence.

“Most discussions of assessment start in the wrong place. The most important assessment that goes on in a school isn’t done to students but goes on inside students. Every student walks around with a picture of what is acceptable, what is good enough. Each time he works on something he looks at it and assesses it. Is this good enough? Do I feel comfortable handing this in? Does it meet my standards? Changing assessment at this level should be the most important assessment goal of every school. How do we get inside students’ heads and turn up the knob that regulates quality and effort” (P103, ‘An Ethic of Excellence’)

Alex Quigley (@HuntingEnglish) has shaped so many aspects of my teaching but as a guide on my feedback journey, the most influential post has definitely been this one related to DIRT. As soon as I read it, I wondered why I hadn’t truly realised the significance of this dedicated time before. If students are given feedback, what are they DOING with it? Even if they’re reflecting on it or setting targets for their subsequent work, are they truly engaging with the corrections made to the piece of work just returned? In giving students time to edit and correct their work upon immediate receipt of feedback, we are encouraging more learning as well as demonstrating that the improvements we’ve suggested are possible. Above all, by engaging in DIRT, we are signalling that the work they’ve completed matters and what matters even more is that it becomes the best piece of work that it possibly can be. It goes without saying that this kind of approach can only ever work with formative assessment as summative assessments are likely to have strict resubmission and resitting rules set.

He’s written more on DIRT here, where he narrates his journey from a marking policy to a feedback policy.

He’s also written top strategies for improving:

Written feedback

Oral feedback

Tom Sherrington was inspired by Austin’s butterfly and here is his account of how his students progressed with DIRT.

Is the holy grail to be found in Video?

Professional video camera

One of the greatest breakthroughs on my journey towards the holy grail of feedback has had to be video feedback. I think I first came across it on the OCTEL MOOC run by ALT. It solves many feedback issues for me but these words from a student couldn’t really sum up better why it is a method you should seriously consider using:

‘I really like this method of feedback Hannah, listening to your voice on video is like being in class having you look at my work – I actually prefer it to written feedback because I was able to sit by myself at home and take on board what you had to say, and I have a better chance of remembering what you have said as I can replay the video too 🙂 can we carry this on all the way throughout the year? It’s is good idea!’

One thing to bear in mind is that this isn’t a more time consuming method. I’ve never found it to be as I much prefer spending 6 minutes talking through a piece of work in a personable way than  spending the same amount of time carefully crafting my written feedback (and worrying about my handwriting). You can add in all the things that make 1-1 verbal feedback effective and it provides something for you and the student to return to in the future if needed. You can read all about my experiences with video feedback here.

A piece of research into the benefits of video feedback, conducted by the University of Plymouth and Reading University, describes the benefits of the approach:

‘Using video and audio to support feedback has a number of advantages. It is a more engaging medium, as it emulates face to face contact far better that the written word. It is easier to express views in more detail using video, and subtleties such as tone of voice are not lost. As many students are already familiar with using video online, through sites like YouTube, providing the feedback videos in a similar environment is likely to increase student engagement with the resource. This project has shown that such a site can be set up in a relatively short timeframe, and the amount of interest the use of video to support feedback has generated shows the great potential of this approach.’

You can read their full report here.

In your search for the holy grail, avoid these routes


  • Feedback that is too grade driven therefore doesn’t promote the development of skills over time
  • Targets related to feedback that read more like a to-do list ie. feedback designed to generate activity rather than learning
  • Teachers in staffrooms and on Twitter talk a great deal about their workload. Never feel as though colleagues’ 10pm/3am marking loads is something to keep up with. It’s not.
  • What works for someone else, won’t necessarily work for you and your learners.
  • Keep your magpie under control: appraise the ideas you come across. By all means place them to one side for later perusal, but don’t apply them to your practice unless something really isn’t working anymore.
  • If you’re unsure whether a feedback approach is working- don’t ask Twitter- ask your learners!

Feedback, for me, is one of the greatest tools a teacher has. However it’s delivered (verbal, video, written, carrier pigeon…), it has the power to crush a student or engage them in transformation. It can build resilience or prevent it utterly. Whether the holy grail exists or not, it is our continual responsibility as practitioners to remain abreast of approaches so that they can be used as and when they will make a positive impact on learning.

You can explore a whole host of feedback ideas here.

There’s a lot out there so take care on your journey not to take every route presented to you and never head down a path blind- U turns are always possible if you are able to remain informed of the options available to you. It’s no doubt a never-ending journey ahead but some approaches will make you feel closer to the Holy Grail than others.


My writing commitment: I’m learning to honour my thoughts. I’m learning that my words can be shared before I’ve connected all the dots or learned everything there is to know. My writing can be a snapshot of a single moment in continually-evolving time.

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